The Surprising Research About Our Listening Skills

In the widely known “invisible gorilla” experiment, volunteers watched a video of different groups tossing a ball and were asked to count the number of times the ball was tossed.  In the middle of the video, a gorilla (it was actually a man in a fake gorilla suit) walks through the group.

The researchers ask us the question: Would you see the gorilla?

Almost everyone has the intuition that the answer is “yes, of course I would.” How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed? But when they did this experiment at Harvard University several years ago, they found that half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible. 

This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.

Science News recently reported on a study that took the invisible gorilla experiment and applied it to our listening skills. Psychologist Polly Dalton of the University of London created a recording of two men talking as they prepared food and two women as they wrapped a gift. Volunteers wore headphones and listened to the recordings that simulated the four characters moving about the room as they talked. During the recording, and for 19 seconds, “gorilla man” repeated, “I’m a gorilla.”

A high percentage of the volunteers who were told to follow the women’s conversation and a third of those who followed the men’s conversation didn’t hear gorilla man at all.

Dr. Dalton’s experiment demonstrates how oblivious we are about what is happening around us. Those watching the video and listening to the audio recording were extremely focused. They were looking and listening with a purpose. Yet, they missed something crucial that was right in front of them. They missed the entire picture…

Look, Listen, and Learn?

Often in our schools and classrooms, we ask students to “look here” or “listen up” in order to learn. It’s not always (thank goodness) looking and listening to a teacher. It could be looking at a video, listening to a classmate, looking at a picture, or listening to a book read out loud. In fact, much of the learning we do in school is based on the encoding processes of looking and listening. Although our five senses all play a role in learning, these two are some of the most important (and most used) inside of schools.

Yet as a teacher, I can’t count how many times the bell would ring and I would be left wondering if my students heard anything in that particular class.

When I reflect on my own learning, I see this as well.  There are many times I am “present” in a learning situation, only to find that I had a different experience than a peer sitting right next to me. Sometimes this happens as my wife and I watch a movie. I’ll see something that she didn’t catch, or she’ll hear a conversation that I missed.

We have to admit to the fact that our attention does not always lead to full awareness. We have blind spots, and the real power is acknowledging our lack of complete awareness.

Being Aware of Our Limitations

On the first day of the 2010 school year, I had a 9th grade class of students fixed on my opening remarks. Just as I was getting into an opening ice-breaker activity, the fire alarm sounded.

We were all a bit confused, as this was the first day, and knew it couldn’t be drill. I thought it was a prank but shuffled the students into the hallway and out the door to our fire drill lines.

It turned out to be a fire in the school cafeteria kitchen and we sat in the 90-degree temperatures outside for a few hours before being let back into school. It was a long and hot ordeal, but we got to know each other a bit and have some fun with other classes outside.

When we came back into the classroom, I asked students to journal about their recent experience. What did they see, hear, and feel during this fire scare?

Students then shared out their responses, and an amazing thing happened: They were all different.

Even though we had all experienced the exact same event. Left the same classroom, down the same hallways, into the same field, our perspectives were vastly different. It opened up a fascinating first-day discussion about our perceptual limitations and individual perspectives.

Being the “English teacher”, I immediately connected this to the work we would doing throughout the school year, analyzing pieces of fiction and non-fiction. We would all have different viewpoints, and that was to be celebrated.

Interestingly, the research supports and recommends that we talk to our students about this, and explicitly to make them aware of strategies to use for listening and learning:

Vandergrift, Goh, Mareschal and Tafaghodtari (2006) have examined the shift of research interest towards listening comprehension. More recent studies have focused on learners’ self-reporting of their understanding and awareness of processes involved in listening in a second language. Vandergrift and colleagues (2006) believe that the students’ awareness of the strategies used can have a positive influence on their listening development.

This study, and others like it, gave John and me insight as we were writing our book, LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student.

The first phase of The LAUNCH Cycle is to Look, Listen, and Learn. This phase is all about students being aware of the world around them, of problems, of situations, and most importantly there own beliefs and viewpoints.

But, it’s also about being aware of our limitations to see the whole picture. We often miss “the gorilla” when we begin to research, prototype, and create. Design thinking provides a process to acknowledge our individual perspectives as we look, listen, and learn.

As you begin (or continue!) to do creative work in your classroom or school, make sure to share out and be collaborative in this first phase, instead of making it only an individual pursuit. The more we can share what we are seeing and hearing, the more we’ll have a chance to talk about what we may have missed in the learning process!

When have you missed the gorilla? Would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments below 🙂

Join 76,000 other learners (and teachers)

And get new posts every week by email.

Powered by ConvertKit

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • John Bennett says:

    It’s not always the gorilla in the room that’s missed… Sometimes, often really, it’s the gorilla in the brain that causes the problem. Let me try to explain / illustrate. Too often, we get fixated on our role in life – the one associated with our education / training, hopefully with our passion. So if I’m an accountant, too often any situation I encounter in my work is first believed to be an accounting problem. Occasionally, it’s forced to be an accounting problem. Thankfully, eventually, it’s ‘allowed’ to be a ‘non-accounting problem as it always was…

    My education is in engineering. Before becoming faculty, I worked in the aerospace industry (lots of engineers). Often heard: “We could always design a better paper clip – but it would have 10,000 parts and cost $20,000!” We were engineers and we designed complex solutions! And then, as an engineering faculty member, I’d often give teams of students a well known situation involving complaints about slow elevators in a hotel. The teams would work to speed up the elevators, add more elevators, … The actual solution was adding menus, lists of things to do, mirrors, … around the elevators. They were engineering students in an engineering class!!!

    We all need to listen to and observe the ‘presentation’ of the situation to be problem solved. Carefully develop the objective (good advice: make sure the objective does not include any possible solution – in elevator situation, objective was to address guest complaints, not provide better elevator service!). And then to generate lots of options, looking for the optimum one.

  • Listening is one of the least taught and most used skills. I often write about it – One thing that often happens is that an adult confuses a child by saying “You’re not listening.” when the child heard, processed and understood everything the adult said. What the child isn’t doing is what the adult asked them to do. How we talk about listening makes a big difference.

  • Fred says:

    I love this article. Thank you. I try to do innovative speaking and listening activities in my classroom with my second-language learning students in China. I am acutely aware of how much is missed in any given circumstance. We do an explicit “Five Senses” writing activity stimulated by a visit to the garden outside our building, for example.

    I notice, on a grammar-pedant note, that there is a there / their discrepancy in this article. Thanks for the great article and video and examples.

Leave a Reply